4 Secret Rules of “Office Speak”






Lately I’ve been helping lots of clients understand and upskill their use of “Office Speak.”

What is that?

It’s a “language” governing what, when, and how to communicate with the people in your office. It can be hard to pick up the nuances of workplace communication culture, especially if your office is virtual. But as with any language, there are rules.

And while the rules of “Office Speak” are rarely explained, you ignore them at your peril!

1. Make Life Easier for Your Boss

Managers have a tremendous impact on the quality of our day-to-day experience. So it makes sense that managing them is a high priority on any job.

How do you “manage” your boss? That’s primarily a communications challenge, and these “Office Speak” practices will help:

  • Keep your boss informed about what you’re working on, and how it’s going; let them know about things (like a supplier slow-down) that will impact your workflow.
  • Tell them ASAP about times when you won’t be available.

2. Give Information on a “Need to Know” Basis

When you’re sharing information with your manager, direct reports, or peers, it’s hard to hit the middle-zone of giving not too much, and not too little, but an amount of information that’s “just right.

This dilemma—how much information is enough for my listener?—comes up a lot in public speaking scenarios. Fortunately, it’s easy to resolve if you focus on the words “my listeners.”

Instead of “What do I know?,” ask “What do they need to know?”

In “Office Speak” terms, you might ask yourself,

  • Why do I want them to have this information?
  • Is there something specific I want them to do with it?
  • Will knowing what I’m about to share help them in some way?

The answers to those questions will help you decide whether to say less, more, or nothing.

3. Give Information Concisely

When sharing important information, be brief, be bold, be gone!

The “3B’s” mean: Know the point you’re trying to make, make it without hedging, and then step away so that your listener(s) can think about what you just said.

This “Office Speak” tip is particularly useful when dealing with higher-ups. Senior executives generally want to hear your conclusion without a lot of detail about how you got to it. (They can always ask if they want to know about the process.)

As one of my favorite Creative Directors used to say, “Jezra, don’t tell me about the birth pains; I just want to see the baby.”

And when sharing inconsequential things…be brief!

There’s a difference between saying,

I’m going to do an errand. I should be back by 2:00, but I’ll text you if I’m running late.

and saying,

I’ve got to go down to the Verizon store and see if they can give me a new battery. I can’t believe I bought this phone six months ago and the battery’s already starting to die. I hope I’ll be back by 2:00, but it’s Friday, so they might have a long line, so if things get out of hand and I can’t make it back here by then, I’ll text you.

One of these statements is “Office Speak.” One is called “chatting.”

4. Help People Triage Your Communications

I hope that you’re not one of the millions and millions of office workers who are so swamped by meetings and emails that they have to do their actual work at night and on the weekends.

Even before the Pandemic, people who worked in offices spent way too much time on pointless meetings and unnecessary emails…and now, those seem like the good old days.

So let’s be part of the solution, by helping people triage (a/k/a prioritize) our communications.

Copying People on an Email

I can only think of two good reasons to cc: someone on an email (and by the way, cc: stands for “carbon copy,” which is what you used to give someone when you were “copying” them).

  1. They want or need to know whatever you’re telling the email’s main recipient; or
  2. You’re covering your ass (“CYA”)

If neither of these things is true, don’t copy that person!

Send Simple Messages in the eMail’s Subject Line

This is the equivalent of texting somebody, if that somebody would rather receive emails than texts. Some examples are:

Need to reschedule Tuesday. Does Wednesday work for you? J.


Please HOLD OFF on sending proposal. Updates to follow. J.

Putting your message in the subject line lets readers absorb it instantly. They don’t have to think about when to open your email; in fact, they don’t have to open it at all!

Just remember to sign your one-liner (I do that with a “J.”), so that your recipient knows they’ve seen your entire message.

Let people know when something is (or isn’t) time-sensitive

This is a simple and courteous “Office Speak” practice. Whether you’re communicating in person or by phone, email, text or Slack, it’s easy to preface your message with time-sensitivity clues like:

  • No rush, but…
  • URGENT! Please contact [name of client] and…
  • Please prioritize [assignment Y] when you’re finished with [assignment X].

Everything is not equally important, and when you don’t let office colleagues know how important a particular thing is, you’re inviting them to make their best guess (and maybe waste time mulling it over).

“Office Speak” Can Grease the Social Wheels

If you’re starting to think that “office speak” is made of equal parts common sense, self-defense, and courtesy…well, I wouldn’t argue.

The best way to learn the rules of “office speak” in your particular workplace are to watch, look, and (most of all) listen to how colleagues who are more experienced and managers who are well-respected use it.

And I’ll be posting more on the subject soon!

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